Higher Living Reflections

From Illusion to Delusion

(Note: This essay includes and expands on ideas first presented in the essay, “Illusions,” that appears in Food for Thought: Essays on Mind and Spirit, Volume Two.)

To make good decisions unfettered by illusions, we must act on clear, honest, factual information. At times though, we ignore the truth in front of our nose and forge ahead despite ominous flashing caution and warning signs.

Think of a person or group you thought would never do you harm but did or had your best interests at heart but didn’t. How did you feel when you realized that? Angry? Hurt? Snookered? Betrayed? If you’ve been played the fool, you not only might harbor those feelings, you might also feel demeaned, used, or manipulated like a puppet on a string. Understandably. So given that no one, I presume, wants to be used, to be another’s puppet. When the truth is revealed, it can be akin to ripping a bandage off raw skin because it invariably touches on sensitive core areas like religious, political, social, or personal. Of them, the personal can be the most difficult to swallow because it can reveal something uncomfortable about you.  

It’s important to distinguish between illusion and delusion. While they mean similar things—something false or misleading—delusion is a mental disorder that is often a symptom of psychosis. It involves the inability to tell what is real from what is unreal and truth from falsehoods. Illusion, on the other hand, can be not only more benign, it can be useful at times. After all, if we knew all that could be known about another, we’d probably shrink back in disgust or horror. We’ve coined a term for that: TMI.

Frighteningly though, sometimes we know the truth but opt to deny or disregard it. Why do we do that? Why create and hold fast to illusions and live out parts—if not all—of our life in accordance with them?

Myopia is both a physical and psychological condition. While eyewear can facilitate correcting the physical limitation, it takes conscious will to step from the world of myopic illusion. If we fail to do that, we fall into the trap of believing that our perceptions and worldviews are the only valid ones. To that the nineteenth-century philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer stated, “Every man takes the limits of his own field of vision for the limits of the world.”

A tenet of Buddhism is that we spend much of our earthly time living lives of illusion, seeing all that surrounds us, from the immediate to the greater universe, as substantial, ultimate reality. It’s hard for the Western mind to wrap itself around that as well as the Buddhist concept of emptiness. Reason suggests that if something is empty, there’s nothing in or to it. But that is not necessarily the case. An uncovered empty bottle is not empty. Rather, it’s filled with the same benign—hopefully—air that you’re breathing. But a sealed bottle that is similarly empty might be filled with a noxious gas. That image can serve as a metaphor about the negativity we fill our minds with and help us take stock of our illusions. Some are benign; others malodorous.

We generally believe the stories we tell ourselves about others or situations, both positive and negative, are true. But that can be self-delusional because sometimes we discover we were wrong, what we believed was erroneous. Our healthy nature surfaces when we admit the errancy of our perspective and change it. The unhealthy aspect appears when we obstinately remain steadfast despite irrefutable evidence to the contrary. That is when illusion can morph into pathological delusion, which often manifests or expresses itself as bitterness, anger, or rage.  

That has ramifications at the personal and interpersonal levels and at the macro, societal level. To our detriment, we sometimes don blinders and concoct fantastical fictions in order to absolve our consciences of acknowledging the unpleasant truth of a person or group so to continue covering for and supporting them by ignoring or explaining away their excesses.

As it is with the Buddhist teachings on illusion and emptiness, it can be hard for the Western mind to grasp the Buddhist concept of impermanence, although the impermanent nature of phenomena might be easier to grasp because we know nothing lasts forever. Including us.

One day each person taking breaths in 2024 will be gone. And all that will remain is that which we leave behind, primarily our legacy and our story replete with a chronicle of our behaviors and choices. If we’d keep that forefront in our minds, our lives would be not only more authentic and reality based, they’d be less illusionary. We’d make wiser choices, maybe sleep better, and this world would be in a far better place.

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  • Melanie Mulhall
    January 18, 2024 at 3:01 pm

    Thought-provoking. You took this somewhere I wasn’t expecting. I liked that. Tell us more. (I’d love a part 2.)

  • Angela M Skiffen
    January 22, 2024 at 8:05 pm

    Interesting read. Very thought provoking. We can all see a ourselves in this essay.